How to make vanilla extract: The best way to use vanilla beans

Vanilla extract is an essential ingredient in baking. Without it, recipes seem flat and muted. Even when vanilla isn’t the main attraction in baked goods, it helps elevate other flavors. If you want more control over the flavor and quality of this foundational ingredient, you need to know how to make vanilla extract.

Learning how to make vanilla extract is easier than you think, and you’ll end up with a unique blend that’s perfect for your baking. Click To Tweet

Tools and ingredients needed to make homemade vanilla extract: vanilla beans, a knife, alcohol, and a clean jar.

Why DIY?

You can purchase some amazing vanilla extracts. Find everything from classic Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla, to our own cold-pressed blend of Pure Vanilla Extract, to Vanilla Bean Paste on our website.

While these are all fantastic choices, there’s a handful of reasons why you might want to also learn how to make vanilla extract. If you make your own, you can:

  • Use different liquors as the base to create unique flavors.
  • Make perfect giftable amounts in jars you’ve chosen yourself.
  • Have lots of wonderful flecks of vanilla seeds in your baked goods.
  • Get more mileage out of vanilla beans by using them to make extract and then vanilla sugar.

Convinced? We’ll show you how to make vanilla extract!

Three varieties of vanilla beans with their labels: Mexican, Tahitian, and Madagascar.

First, choose your beans

There are dozens of varieties of vanilla beans, all with their own distinctive appearance and flavor. We’re going to focus on three kinds that are readily available to home bakers. (But if you come across something else and you’d like to use it, we encourage you to experiment.)

Here’s what you should know about the flavor profile of each kind of bean:

  • Madagascar: Imparts a classic vanilla flavor that’s described as creamy and sweet. Madagascar beans are most often used to make vanilla extract; it’s familiar and comforting.
  • Tahitian: Contains floral notes as well as subtle cherry and almond overtones; pairs well with fruity desserts. It has a strong vanilla aroma.
  • Mexican: Described as woodsy with hints of spice. This vanilla variety is exciting, a perfect choice for those looking to bring something new to their baking.

Three jars of homemade vanilla extract, ready to infuse: Tahitian, Madagascar, and Mexican vanilla extract.

How many beans to use?

We generally recommend using 1 to 3 beans for every 6 ounces of vanilla extract. If you opt for small 4-ounce bottles, like the ones above, 1 fresh bean (cut into pieces) is typically sufficient.

Use more beans if you want a more robust flavor and a darker-colored extract.

Also opt for 3 vanilla beans for every 6 ounces if the beans you’re using feel slightly stiff or look dry. This means they’re likely more than a few months old. Older beans don’t have quite as much flavor potential as fresh beans, so err on the side of using more in these cases.

Three bottles of alcohol — vodka, rum, and brandy — the best choices for making homemade vanilla extract.

Choose the liquor

Now it’s time to decide which kind of liquor you’re going to use as a base for your homemade vanilla extract. You can use vodka, brandy, or another neutral-flavored liquor of your choice.

Rum can also be a good option, although you should stay away from spiced varieties. The flavor of the spices can overwhelm the vanilla beans. Same is true for bourbon — its sweet and smoky flavor can be overpowering so it’s not often used to make vanilla extract.

(What’s the deal with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla if there’s no bourbon involved? It comes from the Bourbon Island of Madagascar. Extracts are often named after the place where the vanilla beans are grown, not the alcohol used to infuse the beans.)

Lastly, avoid flavored liqueur like Grand Marnier — unless you want the flavor (in this case, orange) to come through in your vanilla extract.

How to make vanilla extract: step by step

Once you’ve acquired your beans and alcohol, you’re ready to start assembling your vanilla extract. Follow these steps:

A baker splitting a vanilla bean lengthwise to prep it for homemade vanilla extract.

1. Slit your bean length-wise

The first step to making vanilla extract is to prep your bean. Use the tip of a sharp knife to cut through the vanilla bean, exposing the tiny seeds inside. (This is sometimes called “vanilla caviar” because it’s the richest, most flavorful part of the bean.)

Leave the vanilla bean attached at the top. This will make it easier to remove later.

A baker's hands holding a Madagascar vanilla bean that's been split lengthwise to reveal the vanilla seeds inside.

2. Decide if you want flecks in your extract

Part of learning how to make vanilla extract includes deciding what you want the final extract to look like. Do you want the extract to contain lots of little vanilla bean specks or not?

Personally, I love the way baked goods look when there are flecks of real vanilla beans baked right in. (It’s similar to the effect you get when vanilla bean paste is used in recipes.) Their delightful appearance hints at the rich vanilla bean flavor to come.

If you want flecks in your extract, simply split your bean in half length-wise and leave the seeds in the vanilla pod.

A baker's hand using a knife to scrape out the vanilla seeds from the bean.

If you’d like to make your vanilla extract look purer, without any flecks, use the sharp edge of a knife to scrape out the tiny seeds after you’ve split the beans lengthwise. (Note that if you remove the seeds, the vanilla extract will take longer to infuse.)

Making vanilla extract is a perfect way to use up seedless beans if you’ve used the precious vanilla caviar for another use, like Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Pastry Cream, or Ultra-Vanilla Cupcakes.

A baker putting a split vanilla bean into an empty bottle that will be used to make homemade vanilla extract.

3. Add the bean to your jar

You can use any sized jar; just make sure it has a tight-fitting lid.

Six ounces of vanilla extract fits well in a large swing-top bottle, like the one above. I’ve also found that recycled maple syrup bottles make fantastic vessels for homemade vanilla extract.

Choose what catches your eye or what you have on hand. This is part of the fun!

4. Pour in your alcohol

Once you’ve cleaned the jar, measure out the alcohol. Pour the alcohol into the containers you’ve selected.

A baker pouring vodka into a bottle with a vanilla bean to start the process of making homemade vanilla extract.

A funnel can be helpful if you’re using a bottle with a narrow opening. I decided to test my abilities here!

Once the bottle is full of alcohol, make sure the vanilla bean is fully submerged. If any parts of the bean are sticking out, remove the bean, cut it into pieces, and return it to the bottle. Seal the jar with its cap.

Take note of the bean to liquor ratio. This way you’ll know if you should change the number of beans you use to make your next batch.

For example, my perfect ratio is 1 bean to 6 ounces of vodka infused for three months. Finding out what works best for you may take a few batches.

Three bottles of homemade vanilla extract, ready to infuse, placed in a cool and dark place.

5. Store in a cool, dark place

Now comes the hard part: waiting.

Find a safe place for your vanilla extract to rest while the beans infuse the alcohol. It should be dark and relatively cool. The refrigerator is too cold; consider storing your homemade vanilla extract in your basement or someplace outside of the kitchen. (This is often one of the warmest places in the house, especially if you’re a frequent baker.)

You can take a peek and check on your vanilla extract along the way if you like. Look at the color and give it a smell. It’s an exciting process to watch unfold!

If you left the vanilla seeds in the pod and you want to release some of the flecks, shake the bottle gently every week or so. This will help the color darker and the flavor deepen.

Three bottles of vanilla extract that have been aged for varying amounts of time: 1 month, 2 months, and 3 months.

6. Let the extract infuse

When is your extract done infusing? Extract made from vanilla beans with their seeds can be ready in as little as one month. If the seeds are removed, the extract will need at least three months to infuse.

Bottom line: There’s no exact science to determining when your vanilla extract is ready for baking. Instead, you’ll want to check out the color and smell. Look for these signs:

  • The liquid should be dark golden or brown. The darker the color, the stronger the vanilla flavor.
  • If you’ve left the vanilla seeds in the bean, there should be lots of little flecks that have settled to the bottom of the jar. When you shake it, the extract should look almost opaque.
  • There should be a noticeable vanilla aroma. Remember that your homemade vanilla extract started off as mostly alcohol, so you’ll still detect that pungent smell. However, when your vanilla extract is fully infused, you should smell the floral, sweet smell of vanilla coming through.

You can also try baking with your homemade vanilla to see if it’s ready for action. If the flavor seems subtle, put your vanilla extract back in its resting place and check it again in a month.

Once you learn how to make vanilla extract and do it a few times, it’ll become easier to tell when it’s at its prime.

A baker pouring aged vanilla extract through a sieve into a measuring cup to filter out the vanilla bean.

7. Strain (only if you want to)

At this point, you’re almost ready to bake or give your homemade vanilla extract away as a gift. You can strain it to remove any bits of the bean that you don’t want floating around in the jar.

If you’ve purposefully included the vanilla seeds in the hopes of creating a vanilla bean-flecked look, either skip the straining or use a relatively wide-meshed strainer. This will filter out any of the outer parts of the bean that have broken off, while still allowing the seeds to stream through.

If you’d like to skip straining altogether, you can simply remove the bean from the jar.

Don’t toss out that precious vanilla bean, though! Dry it off and save it for when you’re ready to make vanilla sugar, another enticing vanilla product you can make at home. We’ll show you how to make vanilla sugar (and other infused sugars) in an upcoming blog post.

Troubleshooting

The good news is that not much can go wrong when making homemade vanilla extract.

Three kinds of vanilla extract in small jars: homemade, imitation, and King Arthur Flour Pure Vanilla Extract.

Light color

Sometimes bakers fret that their vanilla extract is lighter than store-bought varieties even after they’ve let it infuse for the proper amount of time.

Don’t worry; it’s common for homemade vanilla extract to be lighter and more transparent than what you might find in the store, especially if you’re used to imitation vanilla extract (gasp!).

Oftentimes homemade vanilla extract is just as flavorful (if not more!) than store-bought, even if the color isn’t as deep. Don’t let this deter you. Give it a try in your baking and see what you think!

White fur = sugar crystals

Also, don’t worry if your vanilla beans develop a thin coating of whitish “fur.” It’s not mold — it’s simply some of the sugar in the bean that’s begun to crystallize. It won’t change the flavor or degrade your extract in any way.

On the contrary, it’s actually a sign that the beans are fresh and full of natural sugars. Applaud yourself for choosing a good source of vanilla beans if you see sugar starting to crystallize.

Can your vanilla sit for too long?

If you forget about your vanilla extract for many months (12 or more) while it’s infusing, the vanilla bean will start to break down. This is easily remedied by straining the extract before using with a fine-meshed strainer.

Your extra-aged vanilla won’t have an overwhelming taste — vanilla extract reaches a peak when all the flavor is extracted. After about six months, there’s usually very little change in the strength of the extract, even if the bean is still in the bottle.

Once you’ve removed the vanilla bean, there’s no rush to use your vanilla extract. If it’s stored in a cool, dark place (again, not the fridge but a cabinet away from the oven), it will usually retain its flavor for at least a year. After that, it’s still perfectly fine to use but you may want to add slightly more than recipes call for to make up for the slowly weakening flavor.

We think you’ll be so excited to use your homemade vanilla extract, it won’t be around for long!

Small and large bottles of vanilla extract that have been aged for varying amounts of time, as well as a few vanilla beans.

Easy steps produce a glorious ingredient

Learning how to make vanilla extract is an enjoyable, fruitful journey. You’ll explore vanilla varieties, and discover the right alcohol to use based on your flavor preferences.

It’ll also be an exercise in patience while you wait for the vanilla bean to infuse the liquor. But at the end of the process, you’ll magically be left with an aromatic extract. Give it away to the bakers in your life, and watch their faces light up. Plus keep some homemade vanilla extract for yourself!

Vanilla bean cupcakes topped with frosting and edible flowers along with two whole vanilla beans.

Our Vanilla Cake Pan Cake is a simple recipe that shows off the flavor of vanilla extract — whether you bake it as cake or cupcakes, like the ones pictured here.

Check out our favorite vanilla recipes and watch how your homemade vanilla extract shines through.

What other ingredients do you want to learn how to make at home? Brown sugar? Cake flour? Yogurt? Baking powder? Let us know in the comments, below.

Thanks to Anne Mientka for taking the photographs for this post.

Kye Ameden
About

Kye Ameden grew up in Fairlee, Vermont and has always had a love of food, farms, and family. After graduating from St. Lawrence University, she became an employee-owner at King Arthur Flour and is a proud member of the Digital Marketing Team.

comments

    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Hi Leslie, that’s a great question! While I haven’t tried using grain alcohol to make homemade vanilla extract, I did some research and it sounds like some bakers like to use grain alcohol to make their extract. Most people who choose this ingredient dilute the grain alcohol with water before using to ensure the alcohol content isn’t too high. I personally like the flavor that comes through when vodka is used, but feel free to experiment. Good luck! Kye@KAF

  1. Elizabeth G. Esrey

    Hi, I have always been told that you can continuously use the same vanilla beans for up to 10 years as long as you add more alcohol to fill it when the bottle is 1/2 empty. I never take the beans out of the bottles, just keep adding alcohol when they’ve reached the 1/2 way mark, left it sit for a month, then start using it again after that. Is this totally wrong? I’m using Madagascar beans and they’ve been in the mix 2 years now and haven’t shown signs of breaking down. Just checking in for proper advice. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      You’re not totally wrong by any means, Elizabeth, as long as you like the flavor your homemade vanilla extract imparts. The alcohol acts as a preservative so you don’t need to worry about the beans going bad. What I’d worry about is a lack of flavor coming from the beans over time. If you have high-quality beans, you can certainly use them more than once to make extract. However, if you notice that your extract is turning quite light in color despite resting for many months, you might want to add a fresh bean to your mix to pump up the flavor. You can try mixing 1 teaspoon of extract in 2/3 cup (6 oz, 170g) whole milk to see how strong the taste is — if you don’t detect much flavor, it’s time to invest in new beans. Good luck! Kye@KAF

  2. Mrs Houlim

    How is alcohol free vanilla made? This version costs more and hard to find. I’d love to make the alcohol free at home.

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      We haven’t tried making alcohol-free vanilla extract in the test kitchen, as alcohol is the best medium for infusing the vanilla beans and extracting the most flavor. However, if you’d like to try making an alcohol-free variety at home, use food-grade vegetable glycerin as the liquid. A few notes on this: the extract may take longer to fully develop in flavor, so err on the side of giving the extract more time to rest before using. Also, the glycerin-based extract may turn thick in consistency, like syrup, with time. (Think vanilla bean paste.) This is normal. If you decide to give it a try, we hope you’ll let us know how it turns out. Good luck! Kye@KAF

  3. Stevie

    Since the price of vanilla extract went up substantially in the past couple years, I thought I would try making my own. I am used to using the Nelsen-Massey brand. The only difference I have tasted in using my home made vanilla seems to be in home made whipped cream where the vanilla plays a major roll. Otherwise I will be making my Vodka vanilla until the price comes down again. I did purchase a lesser expensive extract and it has a distinctly different flavor, sweeter. My favorite is still the NW but using that is truly gourmet in price and flavor!

    Reply
  4. Tim

    Thanks for the lesson and this sounds fun to make although like watching paint dry😂. My question is, what kind of effect does the have? My family don’t drink and I’m wondering if it’s ok to use this? Thanks again for the lesson.

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      We’re guessing you’re wondering about alcohol in homemade vanilla extract, Tim. Is that right? If so, it’s the best medium for infusing the vanilla beans because it acts as a preservative and also extracts flavor from the beans more effectively than water. Most people feel comfortable baking with alcohol-based vanilla extract (even if they’re avoiding alcohol) because the alcohol dissipates during baking, leaving only the flavor of the delicious beans behind. If you’d prefer to make an alcohol-free variety, use food-grade vegetable glycerin. (Available at some specialty grocers and online.) Let the extract infuse for about 6 months if you use this base, and don’t worry if it takes on a thicker (syrupy) consistency. This is normal for glycerin-based extract. We hope this helps, and good luck! Kye@KAF

    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Most high-quality vanilla retailers recommend using vanilla beans in about 6 to 8 months, though they say they can last for up to 2 years if stored in ideal conditions. If you start to notice your vanilla beans becoming dry, stiff, or losing their oily sheen, then it’s time to use them quickly for maximum flavor. Kye@KAF

  5. Denise

    If you want to make non-alcoholic vanilla, what is the base? Also, is the recipe different in any other way?

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Great questions, Denise. As I mentioned to another reader, we haven’t tried making alcohol-free vanilla extract in the test kitchen. (Alcohol is the best medium for infusing the vanilla beans and extracting the most flavor.) However, if you’d like to try making an alcohol-free variety at home, use food-grade vegetable glycerin as the liquid base. The technique is basically the same with a few things to note: the extract may take longer to fully develop in flavor, so err on the side of giving the extract more time to rest before using (6 months). Also, the glycerin-based extract may turn thick in consistency, like syrup, with time. (Think vanilla bean paste.) This is normal; don’t panic! If you decide to try making your own alcohol-free vanilla extract, we hope you’ll let us know how it turns out. Good luck! Kye@KAF

  6. Diana

    Hello! I believe I may have added too many beans, recipe I had called for 1 ounce of bean (10 beans) to 8 ounces of vodka. Its about 3 weeks now and the color is deep amber. Is it wrong to add additional vodka at this stage or do I leave as is?

    Recommendations???

    Thanks
    Diana

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Hi Diana, it’s hard to use too many vanilla beans in homemade vanilla extract. It sounds like the recipe may have intended to call for 1 bean to 8 ounces of vodka, but not to worry: what you have on hand now is a super-quick infusing version. I would strain beans from the amber liquid and put the liquid in a clean jar; your first batch of homemade vanilla extract is complete! Then separate out the beans into 10 small jars or 5 larger jars. (Put two beans in each of the larger jars or just a single bean in the smaller jars.) Let this second round of vanilla extract rest for a few months while you enjoy what you’ve already made. Wait until the alcohol has turned the same color as what you’re seeing now: deep amber. In a few months, you’ll end up with lots of aromatic, flavorful vanilla extract on your hands. Good luck! Kye@KAF

    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Grades of vanilla bean are distinguished by their quality and overall condition. Grade B vanilla beans are often known as “extract grade.” They’re suitable for making extract, though they may take a longer time to infuse alcohol than Grade A beans. Grade A is often known as “gourmet” or “prime” beans, and they’re higher in moisture content, more flexible, and longer than Grade A (usually over 6″). They’re a good option if you’re going to be cooking or baking with the bean itself rather than making extract. We hope this helps! Kye@KAF

  7. Irene in T.O.

    FYI commercial extract has 13.35 ounces (385 grams) of beans per gallon of liquid (128 fluid ounces).
    I have made vanilla extract using 40% alcohol (80 proof) beverages including rum, vodka, and brandy.
    I used 40 beans weighing 2 grams each or a total of 80 grams, per fifth of a gallon of booze (a 750mL bottle). It took at least 6 months to get all the flavor out of the shredded beans at warm room temperature. No difference in taste from any of the base booze. Homemade extract tastes super good in both baked and unbaked recipes.

    Reply

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